For all the people I have loved and lost through the making of this book.

Tawni Nichole

Andria Rupe-Jenkins

Lisa Coffey

Deanie Cawse

Charlotte Guy

James Rupe

Rick Seferian

Chris Kelly

Chapter 1

When I was ten years old, my parents took my sister and I camping. To keep us from wandering too far away, my father told us to be careful, Indians still took scalps. I didn't know anything about Native Americans or what they were capable of, but it scared the bejezzus out of me and kept me from running off. I spent the entire vacation terrified that Indians would take me. I hardly slept, and I set up traps. It wasn't until we got home, and I was bragging to my school mates, that I found out just how gullible I could be. My friends never let me forget it. My whole sense of security dropped out from under me. To this day, I have a trust issue that won't go away. It had been like getting caught with my pants down.

My name is Stephanie Plum. It would be a lie to say that has changed. I still have trust issues, and sometimes those issues have legs. You may even go as far as to say I now have evolved from worrying about getting caught with my pants down, to it actually happening on more than one occasion.

I grew up in a small suburb of Trenton, New Jersey called Chambersburg. It was the kind of place that had sidewalks for kids to roller-skate and parks for couples to take walks, but it also had its problems, and its gossip. The community is still just as close knit as it was then. Everybody knows everybody, and there are just some things that are best to keep to yourself about the local comings and goings. "Under the table and under the hat", Grandpa Mazur use to say. A good motto, but It doesn't always end up that way, and that is something I count on. There is always someone who will spill the dirt on someone else. That can be good and bad. Good when you need information, bad if you are trying to get away with something.

My apartment was built in the 1950's and my bathroom cabinets are probably older than my Grandmother. I have a hamster named Rex, half ownership of a big orange dog-beast named Bob; and from what I'm told, one third of a cop. I'm Italian - Hungarian. I was born with the good hand gestures and unruly brown curly hair. Two things you can always count on. Supposedly I have decent genetics, and good metabolism too. But after 40, watch it. All bets are off. "Eat what you want now, Stephanie", my mom would say, "because after forty, forget about it. You're doomed to blow up like a balloon like your great Aunt if you don't start watching your diet." It is a threat I take very seriously. After 40. Not now . That after forty thing has me good for fifteen more years. Plus, I jog occasionally to the deli, and sometimes I also jog to the bakery. That has to count for something. As for my hair, someone once told me that curly hair is a gift from God, an Angels blessing. But I think that 'someone' was teasing.

For six months, I can honestly say things are going pretty good. I've got a decent job, I've got an apartment, a car, and I even have Joseph Morelli. A challenge itself. Our relationship is one of compromise. We've had an on again off again kind of thing going for a while. Right now, it's on, and that's good. I love Joe. He has been in and out of my life since I was six years old. He has 'movie star' good looks, and to be honest, he is sexy as hell. Growing up, Joe was trouble with a capital T. Trouble for the neighborhood, and trouble for me. It all started because my mother told me to 'stay away from those Morelli boys'. I was born with an over abundance of curiosity. Needless to say, I didn't listen. Joe has mellowed out over the years. I've been told that now I am more trouble than he is. Domesticated Morelli is still wild on the inside though. When he starts to get mad, get out of his way.

Joe Morelli is a cop now. He works homicide with Trenton P.D. He is always getting calls about dead guys, and he is afraid that eventually the call he got would be about me. I think he over reacts, and he thinks I need a new job. It's the one thing that we fight about. That is what gets me into trouble, and not just with him, but with just about everything. I am a bounty hunter. I kind of fell into doing it. I needed a job, badly. And this one was available. I may not be a A-1 primo bounty hunter, like Ranger; but I'm not bad at it either. Plus, it sounds really cool. When your broke and desperate, you will do just about anything not to have to move back in with your parents.

July in Jersey is no joke. Seven AM and the street is already beginning to shimmer with heat. I knew today would be a 'fry bacon on the sidewalk' kind of day. You have to get up early, take care of business before the heat index rises to boil. There was a feel of desperation in the air, at least for me. I needed to pick up someone today. I had to. I was starving.

With the exception of my Grandmother. No one in my family is very happy with my latest choice of careers. I could 'find a different job', according to my mother. 'I could be a supervisor at the personal products factory'. I haven't told her that I already worked at the personal products factory. I was going to tell her, but things changed pretty quickly. Unfortunately my boss was thinking that I would be better suited to work under his desk than as a supervisor, and as I was telling him no with the heel of my shoe; my sweater got stuck in one of the machines, and it blew up. They had to close down the factory for two weeks while it was fixed. After that, they decided to let me go. Something about being a liability.

So for now, working for my cousin, Vinnie is my way of paying bills. He probably won't fire me. I work on commission, and besides, family is family, right? Plus, bribery in Trenton is almost expected. You grow up with it, and Vinnie has a lot of vices that I can use against him. He happens to be one of those strange individuals that has a taste for the exotic ways of life. I know about his kinky fetishes, and his wife doesn't. He would like to keep it that way.

So here I sit, in my new to me twenty year old POS Honda Civic, examining the inside of my eyelids. Giving myself a pep talk, trying to wake up by thinking about the shoes I could buy if I went ahead and did my job. I took a deep breath. "It's now or never Stephanie". I said to myself. I picked up the file on Mr. Paul Banter. No middle name, and a pretty generic description of the man I was going to see. Tall, dark hair, a scar on the side of his face. Generic or not, That didn't matter. I would do the usual. Find the apartment, knock on the door. When he answers, usually things go pretty smoothly. I inform him that he missed his court date, and with a smile, I let him know that I would be happy to escort him back to the court house to get re-bonded. Luckily, it is not a well know fact that being 'rebonded' is kind of a lie. Not that it couldn't happen, but usually the court does not approve of people not keeping promises. The ones that know this, are a little harder to catch.

I picked up my cell phone and called Connie. Connie Rosolli was Vinnie's office manager and front office pit bull. She looks like Betty Boop on steroids. If I were to describe her, I would say va-va-voom with stiletto heels. No kiddin' either. Connie is as mob related as you could get. Her family ran with the big dogs, and she married into it. She is two years older than I am. and two inches shorter. She had bigger boobs than most of the women in the Burg, me included by a mile. She graduated high school with my sister Valarie. Connie is one of those rare individuals who does not want to be part of the mobster world. She is in too deep as it is. Connie wants to do things her way and stay out of the family business as much as possible. Vinnie's bond office is perfect for her.

When she picked up on the second ring, smacking her bubble gum before she spoke, I asked if she had tried Paul Banter's house phone yet. She had, but he wasn't answering. She let me know he had been seen trolling around the park on occasion, but that was after dark. He had no job. He was probably home. I hung up with a good feeling. Today would be a good day.

I did a quick flip through his file, it was always good to get a sense of who you were after. Paul Banter was forty-nine years old. Arrested for assault. Claims it wasn't his fault. I couldn't help but give a tiny snort of satisfaction. Boy, that sounded familiar. I've used that line before. First offense. This should be easy. If I was lucky, really lucky, I could get this taken care of and head on over for some pancakes at Flappy Jacks. My stomach was growling. I was again, without money. My rent was due in a week. My food supply had been reduced to a few crackers, a couple frozen waffles, and a package of Top Ramen. You know you are out of food when you only have one more package of the Ramen. My mother would have kittens if she knew I lived this high on the hog.

I sucked in a breath of Trenton morning air mixed with old Honda and pulled the door handle. It didn't budge, so I put my shoulder into it and tried again. Sometimes doors need an extra shove to get them to open. The door was jammed. Stuck. Reality hit me in the face. I was locked in. This was fantastic. Just the way I wanted to start the morning. I turned the key, and pressed the electric lever on the window. Nothing happened. I moved it left. I moved it right, repeating this process five or six times. I turned the key, hoping that the extra amps from the battery would help. Nope. I was wrong again. I groaned with the weight of disappointment. What kind of car did I buy? The car was turning against me. I've had this car a week! I was beginning to suspect that this car wasn't owned by a little old lady that only drove it to the market and back. Don't panic, I told myself. Finally,after some serious nudging and praying to the car gods, the back window went half way down. Then it stopped. Well, this is a fine mess. Crawling over the middle console, I tried the door on the passenger side. The handle fell off in my hand! I sat there and contemplated my situation. How long could I put up with this? I had been reduced to buying the Honda. I have not had the best luck with cars lately. It was not my first ,second or third choice. I really liked the Mini Cooper. I also really liked the Jeep, the Subaru, Morelli's SUV, the Porsche, the Sentra, the Mercedes; I even liked the Volkswagen Bug. I can honestly say, I hate this car. If Rockford were real, what would he do? Well, I will tell you what he'd do. He would take the day off. Go back to his place at the beach, park his butt in the nearest lawn chair, and pop open a cold one, because apparently this day was going to suck. Get out while you can.

I glanced at my watch. I had been sitting her for almost twenty minutes, struggling. People were starting to notice. This was not good. There was nothing more interesting than a girl who can't get out of her car. Didn't people have lives? Groceries to buy? Jobs to get to? The sun beat down on the car. Morning was in full swing. I was starting to draw a crowd. A bead of sweat ran down my cheek. A little hunched over man with gray hair and very dark sunglasses moved slowly toward my car. He had on a t Shirt that read "I get my oranges squeezed in Florida." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him walk up to the window and tap on it. I smiled, trying again to open the door. He tried from the outside. It would not budge. Okay, so maybe he could help. I had a moment of relief. He would get this door open. Surly this kind of thing probably happens all the time. He seemed nice. Then he opened his mouth. He started yelling out suggestions on how to get out of the car. He was not only extremely loud, but when he screamed he turned in a circle so the entire neighborhood could get in on it.

"Pop the trunk. We will get you outta there!" He shouted. "Put the back seat down, and crawl out that way. Do you want me to call the Fire Department? "

Another man joined him on the curb, I could see them debating on how to get me out of the car.

"Get outta the way, missy." He pulled a Smith and Wesson out of his waistband and aimed. "I can shoot out the window."

"No!" I yelled back, ducking. "No guns, no shooting! I'm ok. I am just looking for my.." I picked up the first thing I could find "My handle!"

"That's a fib!" The first man yelled. "You're stuck. Want me to call the Police?"

I furiously shook my head side to side. No! I did not want anyone from Fire or the Police Department to come out. I knew most of them on a first name basis. I was determined not be the conversation piece of the day. I had gone a whole month without that happening! It was a good stretch. I was not blowing it today. This was so embarrassing. I felt like a sitting duck. There were five older gentlemen standing around my car now. One had brought out coffee and toast. I must have parked next to a rest home. Great. I was seriously considering just zapping myself with my stun gun, and hoping that when I woke up, it would all be over. So much for my early attempt at picking up a skip.

I kept at the window, willing it to roll down. Finally, the back window gave way. It slid down three fourths of the way. I crawled out of the death trap Honda. I heard the sound of applause. It seemed to be coming from the entire block. I took a deep breath. and dusted myself off. Immediately I went to the door of the car. It opened. Oh. that's it! I thought to myself. When someone finally took this car out, I would be happy. The sooner the better.

The little old man walked over to me and gave me a poke in the arm. "That was a hoot." He said. "Can you come back tomorrow, and do it again? I could use some more entertainment around here. It gets mighty boring. He smiled and nudged me again. Next time, make sure you wear a shirt that shows off more cleavage."

My jaw dropped before I could catch it.

I contemplated just getting back in and driving away. Leaving this for another time, but I was already here. I had already made a scene. I might as well just keep my eye on the prize, take the bull by the horns. Without this capture, Rex would be living at my parents. I guess I would too. I needed to get Paul Banter this morning. He was going down, and then Flappy Jacks. I started thinking that maybe the car wasn't the devil. It was just a fluke. Bad timing. That probably won't happen again. It was a cute little Civic. The paint was faded maroon. It had a smashed in fender and almost bald tires, but it passed inspection, (just barely). Plus, the price was right.

I had given my Mini Cooper to the local scrap yard, care of a flatbed truck. Someone had decided that it was not the right color for me; they thought soot black was much more my style. So, until the insurance money came through, a four hundred dollar Honda was a great deal better than Uncle Sander's Buick. The Buick was indestructible, but the Buick was a beast. Hard to maneuver, expensive at the gas pump, and not at all invisible. When I had called my insurance adjuster about the Mini, he said that I was giving him hemorrhoids. His wife was not going to believe that anyone had this much bad luck. His trips out to evaluate damage were getting him in hot water. He suggested I might want to consider buying a tank next time.

Leaning against the car, I took a good look at the apartment building. It was built in the 1980's, when Trenton was doing a "Keep your City Beautiful" campaign. Trying to keep "The Garden State" image a reality. A crack house and a sweatshop had been torn down. The lot was leveled, and "The Garden Apartments" were built. It worked for about a year. Now, this place was just another big square eyesore. Most of the people who lived here were middle age, low tolerance, small time offenders. When they first opened their doors to Trenton, it had a large established garden with vegetables,three waterfalls and lots of trees. Didn't take long before it succumbed to its surroundings. The waterfalls were stolen, and the gardens were dug up to make room for a swimming pool. I thought it had been a good idea, just the wrong neighborhood.

I was dressed right for an apprehension. Black jeans, stretchy halter top, sports bra, and running shoes. My hair was tied up in a pony tail. I had on minimal jewelry and no earrings. Small things like that are important. You don't want someone to get a hold of you by a necklace or tear out your earring during a struggle. I was ready. My hair had cooperated this morning, and I'd only lost a little of my nerve by climbing out of the car window. I had my stun gun in my bag, my mace hooked to my belt, and my handcuffs in my back pocket. I had found a stray bullet in the bottom of my pocketbook, and now the gun was even loaded. Well, loaded with one bullet. I also had my cell phone just in case the stun gun and the one bullet didn't do the trick. Am I prepared or what?

I took the stairs up to Paul Banter's apartment. His door was slightly ajar, his TV was on. He was watching "The Guiding Light". Go figure. Spanish music was playing somewhere down the hall. The smell of cooked onions and curry didn't mix well with the overpowering scent of rotting food, dirty laundry and stale beer. The carpet in the hall was dirty beige. It had been worn down to nubs in many places. No amount of steam cleaning power could fix it. The entire building was in need of serious repair. I rapped hard and loud on Paul Banter's door. A monstrous hand with fingers like sausages took hold of the door, flinging it open. I hadn't expected him to be waiting right behind it.

"What?!"

I jumped back in surprise, composing myself quickly. I had this.

"Paul Banter?"

"Yeah, what of it?"

I looked up at the man in front of me. He was a good six foot three, and must have weighed at least three hundred pounds. He looked like he had been lifting refrigerators instead of bar bells since the picture I had of him. I took a deep breath and cleared the fear from my throat, and gave him the spiel.

"My name is Stephanie Plum, I represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. You didn't show up for your court date. I need to take you in to get re-bonded." I reached over and slapped a cuff on his wrist.

"What the! Hey!" He screamed. Clearly surprised by my quick moves.

I was in no mood to mess around. I took a hold of his other wrist and he was cuffed. I quickly looked around and found his keys to lock up his apartment. I had a heart. When you take someone in, you have to lock up. I proceeded to take hold of the cuffs. I realized then, that he had picked the lock on the cuffs while I was busy thinking I was the bomb. Damn!

He grabbed my hair with his huge fist and pushed me out of his apartment, then threw my cuffs at me.

He screamed, "Loser!" As the door slammed shut.

Shit! (At least I got my cuffs back). Paul Banter was not going to get the best of me! I needed to go with plan B. Sometimes my plans went all the way to plan F before something went right.

I knocked on his door again, he opened it to say something mean but I zapped him.

So here's the thing. When you zap someone with a stun gun, you have to figure out how to get them to the car. Especially from the third floor of an apartment building. I didn't know what Rockford would do in this situation, but I do know what Ranger would do. He always has back up, and he always looked cool. Not only that, but he always makes me want to do things to him that would make an x rated movie look sorta tame.

Ranger was a problem. He was the other man in my life. His real name was not "Ranger". That was a nickname from his days in the Army. His name was Ricardo Carlos Manoso. But no one called him that. Ranger just stuck, so he went with it. He was my mentor, and my friend. From the day he had to rescue me from my shower curtain rod, he has been helping me. He was older than me by two months. Six foot of Cuban American goodness. Nothing seemed to phase him. I am not sure he was even human. Sometimes, I think he must be able to read minds, and fly. Maybe Batman. I just wasn't sure D.C. Comics knows their super hero was out wandering around yet.

He and I spent the night together once, and once was not enough for either of us. I try to keep my distance from him. I loved Joe, and he knew it. I also loved Ranger. He knew that too. He felt the same about me, but he didn't want a relationship, and I needed one. So we kept our distance when it came to sleeping arrangements.

Joe and I were steadily moving fast forward to a bigger commitment without realizing it was happening. My soap was in his shower, and his razor was in my bathroom. So calling Ranger might not go over so well. I tried hard to handle problems without him. Calling him also would put the fuse in a very confusing problem. I wanted him bad. He knew how I felt, and it made it even more difficult. He was like a cat, and I an unsuspecting mouse. I decided not to call him. I got this one. I would get Paul to the car myself. I wrapped Paul's legs together with some electrical tape, and went to find the super of the building. I bet I could get a handcart and get this mess worked out.

I found the super working with the pool skimmer.

"Hi!" I said, flashing him my pearly whites. I looked at his work shirt for a tag. It read "Hester Craig."

Hester was about five foot six and weighed about thirty pounds less than he should have. I took him to be in his early forties. He had an early stoop that would likely get worse in time. He looked up from the duties of cleaning trash, beer cans and a diaper out of the pool. I guess life could get better for Hester.

"Can I help you, miss?"

I brought out my hand and a business card "Stephanie Plum", I said. I shook his hand. It was a cold and wilted kind of handshake that made you want to pull back and wipe your hand on your pants to get rid of the cooties you felt run onto your skin. I tried not to grimace. It was an act of sheer willpower.

He glanced down at the card and had to bring it up to his nose to read it with a squint. "Stephanie Plum. Apprehension agent? Is that like a bounty hunter?"

"I represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. I have a man I need to pick up (literally) and bring in to get his court date rescheduled. He sort of fell over and passed out." (In layman's terms, I zapped him) "I am wondering if maybe you have a handcart or something like that I could use? He is on the third floor and I can't get him to the car by myself."

Hester Craig squinted at me sideways. "So I have a tenant who didn't go to court, and they sent you out to fetch him, eh? I know Vinnie, but I didn't know he hires little girls to play bounty hunter. That's kind of a dangerous job for a little thing like you. Why don't you run on home and have some cookies. Leave the man alone. Everyone here pays their rent, they don't need to be bothered by you or anyone else."

He held the pool skimmer up and leaned on it. Paul Banter was going to be hard to pull down the hall without help.

"I'll give you twenty bucks if you help me."

He smiled. "I'll get the cart."

I guess when all else fails, it is good to know most people can still be bought. I didn't tell him I would have to give him an IOU or Monopoly money when it came down to actually paying him, but I figured I would jump that hurdle when it got here.

Hester met me at Banter's apartment door. He handed me the cart. Of course I couldn't move him.

"He is a big fellow, ain't he?"

I tried picking him up. I pulled him and rolled him over to get him on the cart. Sweat ran down my forehead and my hair was plastered to my face. Hester was no help whatsoever. If he started to come around, I would have to zap him again. I stood there panting, leaning up against the railing. Hester was looking uncomfortable.

"He is going to wake up. I am not going to be here when he does. Mr. Banter is not a pleasant person. Just drop the handcart off at the office when you're finished."

Hester Craig walked away quickly. He looked back once, making sure Paul Banter was still out cold. It was time to get the nerve up. Call Ranger's merry men. Grovel for an assist. Ranger was still out of town anyway. The chances of me seeing him were close to nil. I liked nil. Nil was good. Maybe they would not even tell him that they helped me. I only weigh around one-twenty. Ok, maybe one twenty-five. How am I supposed to get The Hulk on a handcart? I am not an ant!

Ranger's men were not really merry. It was a joke; and I don't believe they knew about it. I think if they got wind I called them that, it would be harder for them to hear the phone when I called.

Ranger owned a successful security company. The men he hired were huge muscle bound scary looking people that resembled models for Gold's Gym. They were efficient at what they did, which sometimes meant protecting Ranger. (He had bad people mad at him a lot). They hardly spoke, and they rarely smiled. I never saw them out of uniform. Rangers employees wore black. It probably made color coordination very simple. They liked me, and that was good. I wonder sometimes if I am comedy relief.

Ranger's team got there in ten. Not only did they get Paul Banter out of the apartment, they got him in my car in less than five minutes, and they were NICE about it too.

Tank, one of the merries, nodded as I thanked them. "Are you sure you want to take him in that car?" He asked, glancing at the bumper and the balding tires.

Sheesh..Yes... !

This morning was turning out to be ok. I was feeling good about being able to buy groceries. I motored over to the police station, pulled into the drop off, and my door wouldn't open. It was stuck again. It was not a fluke. I now knew why this car was so cheap. I think sometime today, I am going to have to have a chat with Darrell or who ever owned the Used Car Emporium.

I was stuck in my car in front of the police station, and my capture was waking up. Great. I couldn't really stun him with cops watching, either. It is a practice most cops sort of frown upon. Especially since I did not really know if this particular stun gun was legal.

Eddie Gazarra walked out to meet me. He is married to my cousin Shirley. Also known as Shirley the Whiner. She complained about anything and everything since she came out of the womb. My mother says she also complained inside the womb so much that her mother had an ulcer while she was pregnant. I had no idea how Eddie put up with her. At family reunions, I chose the furthest seat from her at the table. My grandmother, on the other hand, looked forward to sitting next to her. Saved her a seat, usually. She loved to hear her complain, and she egged her on.

Eddie watched me struggle to get out of the car. Instead of helping, he went back inside the building and dragged three more of Trenton's finest out to watch. Until this very moment, Eddie had still been on my Christmas list, and one of my very best friends. He had a videophone, and I think he was actually filming me! I already had the back window most of the way down; all I had to do was get back there and climb out before someone called the Fire Department. I didn't want anyone using the Jaws of Life to rescue me from the car from hell. This was not going to ruin my day. I repeated over and over. I put my head back and put my finger to my eye. It was beginning to twitch. This was not going to ruin my day! I was determined.

I did my best brave idiot smile and climbed into the back seat. Paul Banter was now fully awake. He started cussing and freaking out. He turned his head and he bit me as I was just getting my rear front to back. He bit me! That son of a bitch! I turned, screamed something irrational and kicked him as hard as I could. I missed. Instead kicking the dash, and deploying the airbag. (Good to know the airbag actually worked. Not as intended, but still.) I'm thinking that this life that I had been living seemed more inappropriate all the time. This was one of the worst attempts at drop off ever. Most times I didn't have an audience.

I crawled out of the car, and into the arms of Joe Morelli. So maybe there were some perks to this after all. There was clapping and money changing hands; some laughing. Joe put me down, but not before he grinned and peeked under my shirt. I couldn't help but smile. It was always great to be in Joe's arms. When he finally let me go, I walked over to the passenger door of the car and tried the handle. The door opened. Some things there are no words for. They were just going to have to tow this car away. I put my hands on my hips and breathed deep for a few moments. I would not get back into this car, if it was the last fricken' car on Earth. I kicked the side panel as hard as I could and dented in the door.

I went inside the building, and retrieved my body receipt from Eddie. I knew he was secretly laughing. He tried to hold it in, but I saw. Joe was waiting for me when I got back to the car. He was leaning against it watching me walk over. He looked good. He had on a brown t-shirt tucked into a faded pair of 501 jeans. I was jealous of the shirt being all tucked in there like that. He was not only one of Trenton's finest, but I think there was no denying, he was one of New Jersey's state treasures. This man was unmistakably hot. Being next to him made me feel like I was going to simultaneously combust. His legs where crossed, his arms were too. His head was tilted a little to the side, and he was looking at me curiously.

"You're working for Vinnie again?"

It wasn't a question really, more an astonished revelation. This guy never quits. He wants me, he loves me, but he hates my job. He was doing the macho Italian thing, and it wasn't going to go away as much as I wanted it to. He assumed I would find a less scary way to make a living. Working for Vinnie as a bounty hunter is what keeps us both from climbing the commitment and marriage ladder. He doesn't want the woman he marries to have a dangerous job. I don't know if he wants the woman he marries to have a job at all. Since I am not sure I want to be married to someone who gives me ultimatums, we continue to date, and argue. Vincent Plum's Bail Bonds had burned down, And when It did, he had high hopes that part of my life was coming to an end.

"I thought that you were working downtown, what happened?"

I hadn't been working downtown, I had been a temp For one of Dickey's lawyer buddies. Once Dickey found out, he had the guy fire me. Dickey was my sad example of married un-bliss. I had been married to him for almost a year when I found him straddling my nemesis, Joyce Barnhardt, on the dining room table playing hide the salami.

"I was let go. Dickie found out I was working in the same building."

"Shit, Stephanie, isn't one of us in harm's way all the time, enough?"

I looked at him; Fire raced through my brain. It wasn't like money was going to just fall out of the sky. I still needed a job, and this one was available. I knew how to do this job, (Basically). For the most part, it was fairly safe. I mean, I could get run over by a train on the way to a receptionist job. What's the difference? I could feel an alarm of self-defense going off somewhere in my brain. I hadn't had breakfast, I was already in three situations, and it was only ten in the morning. I mean, what the hell! I couldn't catch a break, even if it was stapled to my ass!

He saw the red come into my cheeks, and he made the correct assumption that I was going to yell. He grabbed my hand and dragged me to the side of the building. I started talking before he had the chance.

"Joe, you and I are not going to work out if you keep hounding me about how I need a safe job. I have bills. This was available."

I really wanted to make my own money, pay my own bills and do something that I was good at. What I really needed was a man to stand behind me, next to, in front of, or whatever. Just as long as they supported my decision as to what I wanted to do with my life. I mean, I never told him what to do! Well, sometimes. but that's personal!

Joe looked at me incredulously."Hounding you?" He just shook his head, and tried to control himself. "If it is OK with you Stephanie, can we talk about this later? I need to get back to work; There are dead people who need to talk to me."

He wrapped his arms around me. I was still on the offense and I didn't hug him back. "Listen, I gotta go. How 'bout Pino's subs later. I'll bring them over about six?" He gave me a smile, knowing food was always tempting to me. It always put me in a better mood, especially Pino's .

"Ok?" He looked at me. Hoping for a response he could live with.

"Yeah, that sounds great, actually." And it did. I loved Joe, and I really loved Pino's. Plus, I might not get to eat until then. Unless I want to eat the samples at Costco.

I started walking to the bonds office. I left that damn devil car at the police drop off. Let them deal with it. I was done with it. It was a nice day, walking is good for you. After ten minutes, every fiber of my being screamed for me to go back and get the stupid car. I hated walking. I was getting good at getting out the back window anyway. Maybe I would just shoot the glass out. I could get out of the car like Bo and Luke Duke. It could be the new cool thing to do. Maybe I could even paint the car orange and yell "Yee-haw" when I did it. Well, ok. No.

The car door did not open when I got to the bonds office. No surprise there, I just did my thing. Most people walking by didn't even look twice. I guess a lot of people must have this problem. Maybe nothing I did surprises anyone anymore. That might have been a frightening thought, but I pushed it away and walked into the office.

A rush of cool air blew by me as it escaped out the door. It felt really nice inside the office. Maybe I will just hang out here for a while. Connie was not at her desk, so I would have to wait anyway. What a bummer. I sat on the faux leather vinyl brown couch. I had my body receipt; I was ready to go get some food with this money. Lula was at work already. Maybe saying "at work" was a little much, but she was in the office. I had to give her credit. Her outfit was not even half as "loud" as it usually was. On a normal day Lula dressed a little on the "bright and sassy" side. It made her stand out. She was the one person that could get herself in more sticky situations than I could.

I met Lula a few years back. She had been working the streets and she had the nerve to give me information on a murder investigation. For some reason, I had decided to ask the wrong person some questions regarding Joe Morelli and his involvement with a murder. Joe was my FTA. That meant Failure to Appear. He was on the lamb, and I was on the hunt to find him. I asked a psycho boxer for some information, and he took it the wrong way. When I said "Do you know anything about the murder." he thought I said "Gosh, I really would like to date you." Benito Ramirez was a destroyer of souls, a crazy psychotic who got off on hurting people. He felt like I disrespected him for not accepting a soda from him and not going on a "date". He started stalking me. He thought the best way to show his love for me was to ruin Lula's life by cutting her up and leaving her on my balcony, dying. It was his way to show me what a good time he could be. I was lucky enough to get her to the hospital before she died. It has made a special bond between us. Sometimes I feel responsible for Lula and I think she feels the same way about me. We have been working together ever since. I think we wanted to be like Sherlock and Dr. Watson, but I think we are more "Lucy and Ethel."

"What gives?" I said to her. "Where's Connie?"

"Oh." Lula said. Looking at Vinnie's closed door.

"She is in the office with Vinnie. Apparently there is some sort of problem, but I am pretending that I don't give a rats behind about what happens with Vinnie. Just to stay out of personal business and all. Plus, I am having my own dilemmas. You don't see me freaking out. I mean, look at me." She pointed to herself and her outfit "I am not even wearing my bling."

"I noticed." I said.

"I had to tone it down today on account of Tank is introducing me to his Mama later. I don't want to out do her in any way. You gotta do that with moms. You just can't go in there showing them all the beauty at once. I need to look like a lawyer type, so she'll like me."

"Lula." I said. "You need to just be yourself. You do look nice, though."

"Damn straight I look nice. I look better than nice. I look Hella nice. I spent four hundred dollars on this get up. He better recognize!"

I was busy checking out Lula's new shoes when Connie walked out of Vinnie's office. She did not look happy. She looked at me and motioned to Lula. "I am glad you're here." She said. "We need to talk, let's go for a walk."

"A walk?" I just tried that. It was not what I wanted to do.

Being upset was out of character for Connie. She never looked flustered. She was solid as a pit boss and just as mean when she wanted to be. This was turning into a doodle of a morning. Connie power walked out of the office. Both Lula and I ran to catch up to her. I had a feeling that what she had to say did not involve winning the Lotto and vacationing in Baja. I kept my hopes up, anyway. When we got about four doors down, she started telling us what was up.

"Vinnie is getting a divorce." She said as she strutted what God gave her down the street. Which was kind of an amazing site, especially from the back. She had the hourglass figure and the walk that so many women sought to perfect.

"After what happened with the office being burned down, and Vinnie getting caught not only with his pants down, but embezzling money from the business, Lucille finally had enough. She had some thugs come over and give Vinnie an ultimatum of leaving town or having his balls show up at his mother's house in a small envelope."

I am positive that last remark would have made Vinnie white as a sheet. That man did value his package. He grabbed them whenever he was making a point. Not having them would definitely throw off his game. Connie continued to walk down the street very fast; It was hard to stay with her. Lula was huffing behind us not wanting to miss the show, but slowly losing ground.

"Wait!" She panted. "Would you slow your ass down? You are going to give me a heart attack."She was leaning over taking some deep breaths. "I was going to take a power walking class at my local gym." Lula said as she strained to keep up to us. (I say us, but I was losing ground as fast as Lula was.) "There are some hot men power walking. After this, I don't think that I want that kinda pressure." Lula parked her butt on the curb trying to get her breath. I did the same.

"I don't know what kinda steroids you're on, Connie." Lula said. "But I want in."

"This is how I get my thoughts out, Connie said. "Walking fast. It makes me more efficient."

Lula looked at her. "Girl, efficient this!" She held up her middle finger.

"What ever it is you need to say," Lula panted. "I think you need to say it sitting down, maybe with a snack. At least a beverage. I've got to keep up my appearance today. Today is important!"

I was thinking a beverage sounded really good. Maybe even a doughnut. I was not nearly as out of breath as Lula, but I could see where she was coming from. Connie was in a zone. I needed to get into that zone thing once in a while. It might help my thought processes. Running at super charge, that would be perfect. Lula was finally getting the color to come back into her face. The likelihood that she needed a snack was not good. Power walking might not be the best thing for her either. Connie continued talking as we walked a little slower. She promised Lula the pastry shop was going to be open when we got to the next corner.

"Lucille says that Vinnie is a no good scum of a husband. She doesn't want him living there or anywhere near her anymore. He is afraid she will make good on her threat of letting someone cut off his balls and has decided that he is going to sell the business. He wants to move to Scottsdale, like he always threatened. Maybe run a used car joint down there, or get the bonds office off the ground. He wants us to go with him." Connie said with a little panic in her voice.

All time stood still as we stood there and thought about what she just said. No one said anything. I think stunned was a good explanation for what we felt.

"Pardon?" I said, trying to wrap my mind around what she just said. "That last part again?"

Connie started flailing her arms around. She started pacing back and forth in front of us. "He says that Les Sebring will pick up the slack, and buy the business. Sebring owes Vinnie a favor from way back." She looked at us with desperation. "He has already been looking! A realtor is lining up places that may work for him. He is serious this time."

Connie was the rock that held everything in place for Vinnie and the business. She never panicked. Her voice never cracked or waivored, and here she was having a nervous breakdown right in front of us. Connie did not want to have to change in her life, she liked running the show at Vinnie's. It kept her on the good side of Mafialand. She liked to have the resources if she needed them and at the same time, keep up her good Catholic values and morals along the way. The bonds office had been a good fit. She wanted everything to stay the same. Vinnie leaving would mean she would be back out looking for a job. No one liked to look for work. Not Lula, not I, and not Connie.

Arizona didn't bring warm and fuzzy feelings to my mind. Arizona was where we had gone on the fateful trip where I was deeply humiliated by scalping stories. I was not going to follow Vinnie to that place. The silence stretched. All of us felt a little comfortable with the situation that was our lives. Yes, it could be scary, but I had learned to make it a routine that I could live with. Now what? Go back to hunting for a job? Or moving into my parent's house until I could find one? Moving in permanently with Morelli? Or working full time for Ranger? None of those things were good options. I should never have gotten up this morning. Connie's phone started to ring and she walked off, still freaking out about what just dropped on her plate.

Lula and I watched Connie talking on the phone. I was lost as to what to do about Vinnie. I think Lula was feeling the same. "I don't want to live in Scottsdale." Lula said." Where the hell is that anyway? The desert? Do I look like I can handle the desert to you? I could go work for Les Sebring, or find a receptionist job, right? This could work out. I need a doughnut. Where did she go?" Lula looked around for Connie. She was coming back up the street toward us. "She promised us a snack."

I took a deep breath, and tried not to hyperventilate.

"I was talking to my cousin." Connie said as she waltzed back up to us. She looked more in control now. I was hoping for some good news. "He said he would be willing to pick up the bonds business from Vinnie." She said smiling. "We could all keep our jobs. But then I got to thinking, why do we need him? I have some money saved. I say we go in to business together and buy the bonds office from Vinnie ourselves. We don't need any help. We know the business; I think we should do it."

It was something to think about. I had no intention of trying to beg for my job back at the button factory, the tampon factory, or the coffee shop.

Five months ago, Vincent Plum Bail Bonds burned to the ground. The story is that Vinnie had gone into business with the wrong group of guys. He gambled away some of their money, and put not only himself in a life threatening situation, but put me and my friend Moon Man in danger also. Vinnie had made some wrong choices when it came to what company he had kept. When it got back to his father in law, things got worse. Not only would the debt not be paid off by Lucille's father, Harry the Hammer, but Lucille was done with him.

Vinnie was on the outs with his wife and father in law. Which was not good, since his father in-law was Mafia with a capital M, and you don't mess with those boys. The people Vinnie owed money to, burned the bonds office down, and because there was no office, we all had to find work elsewhere until it was rebuilt. I did some skip work on the side that I still had the papers on, and Lula and Connie helped out as much as they could recovering files, and working with RangeMan to extract data off the burnt out computers. I was out of work until things were up and running again, hence the work at the button factory. Plus, another attempt at Cluck in the Bucket, the tampon factory, and a little stint at the fresh yogurt and bagel shop.

They all turned out to be a bad fit in one way or another. I came home smelling like chicken grease. I clogged the cotton machine up when I spilled my soda, and got in a fight with a large chicken. I flooded the bagel and yogurt shop, got in a slapping contest with a bunch of unruly men on Sabbath and of course, the personal products factory disaster.

I was half considering taking a job again at the pastry shop but I was avoiding it. Tasty Pastry was the place I lost my virginity. Not exactly in a dignified way either. Joe Morelli took it pretty much consensualy behind the chocolate eclair counter. That led me to sort of lose my cool and try to run him over with my father's car, breaking his leg.

Would a business venture for Connie, Lula and me be what it took to fix my relationship with Joe? Or would it make things worse? What If we turned out to be really bad at running a business? Then it would be one more thing that I stunk at? Or, what if we turned out to be successful, and being so, Joe and I grew farther apart? Not only that, what would my grandmother think? She would think she would have a job, is what she would think. That in itself is a reason to not do it.

We got back to the office just after lunch. Finding our way not to the pastry shop, but instead to Lula's favorite. Cluck in the Bucket. Me, I didn't think I could ever eat at Cluck in the Bucket again. I got an ice tea and decided that I could wait on lunch. Connie gave me my check for the capture of Paul Banter. I had a lot to think about. This is where my life just never stops being confusing. Did I want to start fresh and take a chance on Scottsdale? Relocating would change everything. No one would be putting my escapades on video. I would have to leave my family, but I could visit. I know my love life would be a lot less complicated if I just took off for a while.

I was sitting on the edge of Connie's desk burning a hole in the couch with my thoughts when I felt a change in air temperature. There was only one person that could do that. Ranger. It had been almost five months since I had seen him. He took a government assignment just after the bonds building went up in flames. One of last things he had said to me before he flew off into the sunset, (basically), was that "I owed him." For what? Well, he and I love to roll around and get frisky.

Ranger came up behind me and put his hand on my waist as he picked up a file Connie was saving for him. My heart started to beat faster and heat ran up my spine. I turned so i could see him. He was a little thinner than he was 5 months ago. His features were harsh, then they turned soft and a little smile edged the corners of his mouth as he looked down at me. His eyes were piercing brown. I held his stare. He looked hungry. I wondered for a moment if I did too. I swallowed hard. I think I forgot to breathe. I wasn't exactly prepared to see him today.

"I need to talk to you." He said. "Walk out with me."

Oh boy. Connie and Lula both looked down at what they were doing and started fanning themselves. I glared at both of them for not helping me out. They know how I feel about being to close to Ranger.

Ranger scared the hell out of me. Not in a "afraid for my life" way, but more of an afraid for my soul way. With him around, it was difficult to be in a monogamous relationship. He was way too tempting. Like a dessert you weren't suppose to eat. The fact that he was not into relationships, made it that much more important to control myself. He was walking sex. Pure and simple. I was not about to just play around on the side with Ranger when the moment was right. One night stands were frowned upon. Plus, we already did that.

I don't know how Vinnie and Ranger started working together. But it works out well. Vinnie has some dangerous people he writes paper on. Ranger is the one who deals with them. He only takes the high bond cases. I guess smaller ones aren't worth risking his life. The only person that found more high bonds than he did, was Jeanne Ellen. She worked for Les Sebring. I'm not sure what the relationship was with Ranger and Jeanne, but I bet it is sexual. She was very Cat Woman. And Cat Woman and Batman were always after each other.

When I got outside, Ranger was leaning like a relaxed cat on his very new, very black Mercedes. He had his arms folded across his chest. After five months of no Ranger, it was hard for me to not touch him. I know it was wrong to feel so compelled to attack him, but I don't have a lot of willpower. I put my hands in my pockets of my jeans.

"Word on the street is that Vincent Plum Bail Bonds may be no more. That he is thinking about moving the operation to Scottsdale." He paused. "And that he has asked the staff to move with him. Is there any credibility to this?"

Boy, word does get around quick.

"Connie told us about an hour ago." I said. "I guess Vinnie may be getting a divorce. This might not be the safest place for him to be. To close to Lucille and her father. Someone went as far as to threaten to cut off his balls if he doesn't relocate. He's considering leaving."

He knew all this, but he stayed silent. Waiting.

"And..?"

"And, what?"

"And. What are your plans going to be, Babe? Are you taking him up on the offer, and moving to Scottsdale?"

I honestly didn't know. So I shrugged. "I dunno, there hasn't been an offer yet. This has all just come up. I have no idea what I'm going to do."

Ranger looked at me for a few moments, then walked up to me. His eyes held mine in some sort of a tractor beam. I couldn't look away.

"If you need a job, you know that you can work for me." As he said this, he moved in. I walked backwards afraid of what I would do to him if he got too close. He drew me further into the shadows between the buildings. I felt the hot bricks against my back, nowhere else to go. He leaned into me, blocking my escape.

I could work for him, but how exactly would that work out? Working for Ranger would mean I would have other problems. Joe, for one. He would be happier if I stayed working bond enforcement.. Joe was keenly aware of how Ranger felt about me. He didn't trust Ranger. He thought he put me in dangerous situations constantly, and Ranger pushed his luck.

"Afraid of me?" He cupped my face with his hands, kissing me lightly. I nodded "Yes" and he smiled at my reaction. His fingers slid down my neck, trailing down my side sending electric shock waves through my body. I was quickly losing the battle with my moral obligations. He knew the power he had over me and he was taking advantage. He put his hands on my waist, pulling me in closer. His kiss deepened as my fingers took hold of his shirt. Oh geez, I had forgotten just how much I loved being close to him. Before I knew what I was doing I had angled my body to match his. I couldn't help it, Ranger was hard to resist. This time, I pulled him in closer. He pressed into me and my hips responded. I pushed up against him. I was thinking, who needs morals?

He stopped. His lips so close they brushed mine. A little smile tugged at his mouth. "I missed you."

I almost started hyperventilating for the second time today.

Ranger took his hand and gently swept a stray curl back behind my ear. He kissed me very softly, and pulled away. "I know you are seeing Morelli again." He said, as he walked back to his car and got in. "You still owe me."

Agh... That man! By the time I got my blood pressure calmed down, he was long gone, and I was left in the alley banging my head against the wall.

Not long ago, Ranger and I were in a precarious situation. I was not seeing Joe, and we were alone in his bedroom. I came really close to giving into him, but my mind was on other things. One was that I didn't think it was a good idea to sleep with Ranger again. Even though we were broken up, Joe was still who I wanted to be with. Ranger held no promise of a relationship. Nothing more would come of it. It was something I was keenly aware of. I was about to give in to his advances that night. I mean what the hell. I deserved it, and I loved Ranger. The flashing lights on his computer screen indicating a fire at the bonds office threw me off. I couldn't concentrate. Apparently, it ruined the mood. He told me that I owed him for that night. He left on this assignment after that. I just assumed or hoped that he had forgotten. I guess not.